Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Dialogue (Part 1)

One of the hardest techniques for new writers to handle is dialogue. When I first started out, my characters never just said something. They agreed, cautioned, reminded, mimicked, answered, contributed, guessed, explained, responded, admonished, confessed, encouraged, clarified, blurted, pointed, winced, replied, corrected, acknowledged, returned, laughed, challenged, chided, objected, contested, quipped, offered, moaned, complained, repeated, stammered, pleaded, inquired, mumbled, interrupted, confirmed, addressed, countered, advised, completed, allowed, supplied, ordered, asked, continued, chided, answered, whispered, teased, requested, hollered, echoed, declared, informed, spoke, bellowed, spit out, thundered, hissed. All within a few pages. Whew!

Even worse, I would sit and agonize over the way my characters spoke. “He responded sparingly.” “She informed him haughtily.” He mumbled sadly.”

dialogueIt was a joy to discover that modern dialogue relies primarily on “said,” such a common word, the reader’s gaze glides over it as if it were invisible. It was even more of a joy to discover that adverbs are frowned on. The dialogue itself, or the beat—the bit of action accompanying the dialogue—should show the character’s emotion. “I hate you”, she said angrily tells us what the character is feeling. She picked up a rock and threw it at him. “I hate you!” shows us what she is feeling, allowing us to become intimately involved with the character. The only time an adverb is necessary is when the character’s words are at odds with his mood, such as: “I had a great time,” he said sadly. You can also use an occasional “ly” adverb to describe the tonal quality of the character’s voice. “I hate you,” he said softly.

Besides helping identify who is speaking, beats help set the stage, tell us about the character’s personality, and vary the rhythm of the dialogue. Overdone, the beats are as distracting as any other speaker attribute, so the secret is to pay attention to the flow. Do you want short snappy dialogue? Don’t use beats. Do you want to slow things down a bit, keep the dialogue from seeming too disembodied? Use a few beats.

It’s hard to write crowd scenes and keep each character identified without resorting to copious “said”s, but beats keep the scene moving and, if you use beats that are specific to your character, you make the various characters come alive.

This excerpt from my novel Daughter Am I shows the use of beats. The scene is between my hero Mary, a young woman in search of her grandparents’ murderer, and a group of feisty octogenarians who are trying to help.

*     *     *

The man stopped bouncing and let his arms drop to his sides. Now that he stood relatively still, Mary could see he was skinnier than she’d first thought. A gray slouch hat tilted toward one eye, but the baggy pants cinched high above his waist and the bright flowery shirt several sizes too large marred the jaunty effect. His hands shook uncontrollably. Parkinson’s disease?

“You must be Happy,” she said.

Frowning, Happy patted his torso. “Must I be happy?” His voice deepened to what Mary assumed was his normal tone. “Can I be happy? Can anyone truly be happy?”

“His name is Barry Hapworth,” Kid Rags said, flicking a bit of lint off his navy pinstriped suit jacket. “For several obvious reasons, everyone calls him Happy.”

Mary glanced from the bus to Happy. “Were you driving this thing?”

Happy puffed out his meager chest. “Sure was.”

“And did you almost run over Mrs. Werner’s cat?”

“I’ll take the fifth.” Happy paused for a fraction of a second. “A fifth of bourbon.”

“Did someone say bourbon?” Kid Rags removed the flask from his hip pocket, took a swig, and passed it around.

“Who are all these people?” Bill asked from behind Mary.

Mary turned, wondering how she could explain the situation to her fiancé, but Teach saved her the trouble and made the introductions. Arms still folded across his chest, Crunchy nodded to Bill, then stepped close to Mary. Happy punched the air, but stopped when Bill showed no inclination to fight.

Kid Rags shook Bill’s hand. “You’re a lucky man.”

“What are you all doing here?” Mary asked. “I was supposed to pick you up. And why is Happy here?”

“Happy is a friend of Kid Rags,” Teach began, but Kid Rags interrupted him, saying hastily, “Not a friend. Just a fellow I know.”

“Happy knows someone who knows Iron Sam,” Teach continued, “and since we knew your car wasn’t big enough for all of us, we accepted Happy’s offer to drive us in his bus.”

“Who’s Iron Sam?” Bill asked, sounding plaintive.

“Butcher Boy,” Kid Rags said.

Bill’s eyebrows drew together. “Butcher Boy? Mary, are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

Mary laughed, suddenly feeling lighthearted and carefree. “I haven’t a clue.”

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Change

Change is the reason for a story. Without change, you have an anecdote, perhaps a description of a life or a time, but no story.

Whenever there is change during the course of the story and—more immediately—during a chapter, a scene, a page, even a paragraph, it advances the story. These changes should be interesting and compelling in themselves, but they should also worsen or improve the status of a character, raise new questions in readers’ minds as to the story’s outcome, and prepare for scenes to come.

Changes can be major alterations in a character’s life, such as the death of a loved one, or they can be as subtle as the touch of a hand. Changes can jolt the reader or give them a false sense of security so you can hit them with a major changechange later to better effect.

Writing doesn’t just happen, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Our stories change us every bit as much as we change our stories, in an ever tightening spiral. We create episodes of change so that the characters will change, which in turn change the plot, which in turn change the whole focus of the story, which in turn changes our relationship to the story.

While writing A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I researched Pingfan and the human experiments that were being done there (some on American POWs) and I thought I’d found something that few others knew. Afterward, in every novel I picked up, there was a mention of Pingfan, so I had to change the focus of the book, which in turn changed the characters and how they got to the end. (The end was a given—I’d written that chapter about halfway through — I just needed to find a way to get there.) Many of the conversations I had about this Pingfan oddity ended up in the book, which gave the story an added depth.

Some psychologists say we never change in any basic way, that our characters and essential personalities are our foundation. We can only change in small ways, such as changing our habits, changing our focus, changing our perspective. This is at odds with those who say that a character must do a complete about face. That about face is possible if it is motivated, if there is a reason for your character’s basic change. Normally, a smart person doesn’t become stupid overnight and a stupid person doesn’t become smart, though abnormal situations can create such changes. Flowers for Algernon, for example, or Regarding Henry.

Although change is important, many characters don’t change—take detective novels, for example. Most of the classic detectives were the same from the first page to the last. But other characters in the stories change, and the situations change, which keep the detectives changing direction and focus. So while they themselves didn’t go through any sort of metamorphosis, the stories still seemed to be about change. And perhaps the truth, as uncovered in a detective story, is a change in itself.

Sometimes a character’s inability to change is the story. For example, if a character was tortured and despite the horrors, never changed, it would tell you a lot about the character, and how his non-change changed the world around him. Forrest Gump comes to mind.

Almost anything can bring about a change. Lies can bring about change, the truth can bring about change, a knock on the door, a trip. Even something so simple as losing weight. I had a friend, a lively teenager who was quite obese. Everyone kept telling her she would be pretty if she lost weight. She did lose a lot of weight—started a diet before school let out and spent the whole summer being active and eating right. She wasn’t more attractive. And she wasn’t more popular. This broke her heart. She became sullen and morose. And depressed. And regained all the weight. Which is an example of another type of change—where the character changes but ends up the same as at the beginning.

Here are some questions to ask yourself if you need to delve deeper into the changes that occur during the course of your book:

  • What changes do your characters undergo?
  • Do you keep the changes coming at an ever dizzying rate or do you throw small changes at your characters, changes that add up over time?
  • Are your characters the same at the end of all these changes? Is their situation the same?
  • Is the final outcome a major upheaval for the character or merely a change in focus?
  • Do all your characters change, or just the main character?
  • How do you bring about the changes?
  • Are these changes logical and believable?
  • Are the changes an intrinsic part of the story or just thrown in for the sake of change?

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Keeping your Characters Consistent

Consistency makes for a good lemon meringue pie—you don’t want globules of lemon ruining the texture of the smooth filling. And consistency makes a good story—you certainly don’t want globules of untruth ruining the texture of your readers’ belief. I admit I’m stretching for an analogy, but still, the point is that readers will forgive a writer almost anything except inconsistencies that interrupt the flow of the story.

I once started to read a book where a man spirited away the Shah of Iran. According to the author, the Shah lived fifteen years beyond his supposed death in 1980. The operation was so secret and so successful that no one knew about it. But… It took only this one very high profile achievement to assure a solid client base for the man. Supposedly, word travels quickly in the very elite circles of power, and so the demand for the man’s services was always in excess of his ability to produce.

What??? If no one knew that the Shah survived his death, how could word travel? And if word did travel, how could high massesprofile clients remain “dead,” especially since most of them were hiding from those in the elite circles of power? The inconsistency took me out of the story, and I never did finish reading the book.

It’s almost impossible to keep inconsistencies from slipping into a story, which is why self-editing, though vital, cannot be the final editing process. We writers see consistency because we see what we meant to say. Others only see the inconsistency. I am grateful to one of my editors for finding one particular inconsistency in Daughter Am I. The editor wrote, “It’s not clear here whether or not Mary completely removed her shirt. If she did, when she stood up and ran to the bathroom, then turned around and had the conversation with Tim, she’d have been completely topless. Given their feelings for each other, and their state of undress, it seems unlikely they would have been able to have such a lengthy conversation without biology taking over sooner.”

Oops. I completely missed that. Mary took off her shirt so Tim could massage her sore back, and when the massage turned heated, Mary (engaged to someone else) runs from her feelings and hides in the bathroom. Inadvertently, I had her brazenly opening the bathroom door, standing half-naked, and starting a casual conversation—not at all what my poor innocent Mary would have done. After traveling halfway across the country in the company of seven old gangsters (well, six gangsters and one aged ex-night hall dancer) she’d lost most of her naiveté, but still, she would not have flaunted her naked breasts.

Naked breasts may pale in comparison with unsecret secret operations, but the inconsistency could have dammed the flow of the story for discerning readers. So, the moral of this tale is, if you remove your heroine’s shirt or other apparel, make sure you remember her state of undress and write accordingly.

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Purposely Flawed Characters. Or Not.

Interesting characters make interesting stories, not the other way around. An author develops interesting characters by putting them under pressure, giving them much to lose, and allowing them to change because of their experiences. And the author makes these characters at least a bit larger than life. Who wants to read about characters who sit around watching television all the time or who repeatedly have the same tiresome argument with their children or who can’t resolve their problems? We deal with that every day. We don’t need to read about it. On the other hand, if the traits are too idealized, characters come across as comic book silly.

Depth of character is revealed in the choices a character makes while at risk. Without the element of risk, there is no real story, only a string of episodes. Think what Superman would be like without Kryptonite—totally uninteresting and flawed flawedin his perfection. But Kryptonite is a purposeful flaw, put there to make Superman more interesting, which makes him seem even more of a comic book character. Oh, wait. He’s supposed to be a comic book character!

To offset the problem of idealized characters, many writers try to create a purposely-flawed character, such as a boozing cop or a mother who can’t communicate with her teenager, but this seems an unnecessary distraction unless, of course, it is a vital part of the character’s motivation. So many flawed characters, particularly heroes with a drinking problem, have been done so often they have become nothing but cardboard cutouts. There is a long tradition of hard-drinking detectives, but there has to be a more creative way of giving characters flaws. Or not. Writers are often enthralled with the idea of flawed heroes, that they are missing the point. They don’t have to give their heroes obvious flaws. By making their heroes realistic, the heroes are automatically flawed.

A character must lose occasionally or make mistakes. Where is the suspense if every time a character attempts to do something she succeeds? And in that loss is a shadow of the flaw, because the setback must be realistic. Did the character lose because of arrogance, assuming she knew what to do when she didn’t? Did the character lose because she wasn’t physically fit or knowledgeable enough? Did the character lose because she didn’t plan correctly, because she was unfocused, because of her inner conflicts? Such losses force a fully realized character to change so in the end she can succeed.

In the beginning of Daughter Am I, twenty-five-year-old Mary Stuart has no real direction, no purpose, but when she learns she inherited a farm from her recently murdered grandparents—grandparents her father claimed had died before she was born—she becomes obsessed with finding out who they were and why someone wanted them dead. She drives halfway across the country with a feisty crew of octogenarians, friends of her grandparents, and even though she discovers they all had ties to the mob, she doesn’t let her good sense override her obsession. This understandable obsession is her flaw, and if she didn’t grow during the course of the story, if she didn’t learn from her setbacks, the obsession could have become a fatal flaw. Fatal or not, flaw or not, Mary’s obsession makes her real, makes her a bit larger than life, and makes her interesting.

To be real, a character must have strengths and weaknesses, but it’s not enough simply to assign a special strength or weakness to a character—the quality needs to be tested. You can do this in one of two ways—play on the strength or play on the weakness. For example, if a character is smart but lacks physical strength, you can either place the character in a situation where the character’s intelligence saves the day or you can put him in a situation where he is forced to rely on physical abilities he doesn’t have.

Strengths are arbitrary and can easily become flaws. Independence can become an inability to depend on others, an ability to cope can be seen as indifference, high ethical standards can become intransigency. Which is great for a book—the resulting misunderstandings can cause conflicts among characters allows the plot or subplots to thicken. And your characters become even more credible.

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This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: What Does Your Character Want?

The most compelling characters are those who want something desperately and who will do anything to get it, which is why Scarlett O’Hara is such a perennially popular character. Frankly, my dear, I find her a bit over the top—selfish and greedy and way too egocentric. Still, her wanting does make for a compelling character.

At its most basic, a story is about want. The main character wants something, and someone or something is preventing her from getting it. The want can be as simple as a good night’s sleep, as personal as a lover, or as complicated as world peace. In the end, the character gets what she wants or she doesn’t get it. Sometimes she gets what she needs, which is just as satisfying for the reader because such an ending gives a story a sense of rightness, of poetic justice.

BOB STARK, the point-of-view character of More Deaths Than One, wants serenity, though what he gets are nightmares, both the sleeping and the waking kind. Debilitated by headaches, he doesn’t have the energy to discover the truth, but Kerry, a young woman he meets in a coffee shop, goads him into it. When Kerry is threatened, though, he becomes what he needs to be to keep her safe.

A Spark of Heavenly Fire has four point-of-view characters, all of whom want something.

All KATE CUMMINGS wants is a good night’s sleep.

Her husband, a semi-invalid, committed suicide thirteen months ago. Many times during the years of his illness she could have treated him a little better than she did, and she is haunted by her own mean spirit.

wantThen the red death descends on Colorado, the entire state is quarantined, and martial law is declared. As a patient’s advocate and an insomniac, forty-two-year-old Kate sees more than her share of the horror. People with bright red eyes spewing blood, then falling down—dead. Tanks and trigger-happy troops patrolling the streets. Men in biohazard suits throwing bodies into the back of delivery vans.

Now she wants not to be afraid.

All JEREMY KING wants is to leave Colorado.

He has everything. Two Oscars for best actor. A vast Montana ranch. Wife, son, daughter. He also looks better now, at fifty-eight, than he did when he was young.

Having grown up poor in Grand Junction, he hates Colorado, and only came to Denver to finish a film. As soon as the director yells cut, he’s in his rented Lexus on his way to the private airfield where his jet is supposed to be ready for take-off. It isn’t. Instead, armed National Guardsmen inform him that airspace is restricted. Furious that he’s being treated like one of the peasants, he decides to drive home, but the mountain highway is clogged with a thousand cars going nowhere. He returns to Denver, determined to leave Colorado if it’s the last thing he ever does.

All GREG PULLMAN wants is to know the truth.

Since childhood he’s been consumed with the need to know why creatures act the way they do. It is no different with the red death.

After discovering that the disease is a bio-engineered organism, he tries to find out who would develop such a thing, and why. He learns that despite the ban on bio-warfare experimentation, all over the world deadly organisms are being produced and stockpiled. Bubonic plague. West Nile fever. Green monkey virus. Combinations such as smallpox with Ebola and encephalitis.

Burdened by the awful truth, he turns to his friend Kate for comfort, and finds he wants her, though he is engaged to Pippi O’Brien.

All PIPPI O’BRIEN wants is . . . well, she doesn’t know what she wants.

After college, she wanted a job at a New York television station, but accepted a position as weathergirl in Denver. Now, at thirty, she wants to marry handsome Greg Pullman, but when he takes the hint and proposes, she says she’ll think about it. A few days later, deciding she does love him after all, she says yes. While waiting in a bar for him that very evening, she meets Jeremy King. Feeling the full force of his personality, she leaves with him, forgetting about Greg. Now she has a new dream: lovely consort to the charismatic King.

She is signing autographs with Jeremy on a downtown street when UN soldiers arrive, level their weapons at the assembled fans, and order everyone to drop to the ground. Fighting back the urge to scream, she obeys. Those who don’t obey are immediately gunned down.

Now all she wants is to accompany Jeremy on his quest to escape from Colorado.

So, that’s what the characters of More Deaths Than One and A Spark of Heavenly Fire want. What do your characters want? What do they need? And in the end, do they get what they want, or do they get what they need?

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Names Matter

Scarlett O’Hara was originally called Pansy. If Margaret Mitchell had kept that name, would her epic novel ever have become so popular? A character with the name of Pansy could be sweet and biddable with rare moments of stubbornness, but since “Pansy” lacks the harsh consonants of “Scarlett,” the name doesn’t sound as if it belongs to an iron-willed character who could catch and keep the attention of such a worldly man as Rhett Butler.

ThUncertaintyough Scarlett fits the name of the character in Gone with the Wind, it could not be the name of a medieval heroine. In those days, the most popular name was Mary, with Elizabeth coming in a distant second. I suppose if Gone with the Wind were written in the 1980s, Scarlett’s name would have been Heather. Odd to think that in another forty years, youth will scorn that name as being old-fashioned, fit only for elderly women, like the name Effie is today.

I had fun naming my aged gangsters in Daughter Am I. In keeping with the times of their youth—bootlegger times, that is—I gave them nicknames that matched their characters. I called my wise old conman “Teach,” my dapper little forger “Kid Rags,” my ex-wrestler “Crunchy.”

And then there’s my hero, poor Mary. She starts out so young and innocent, and ends up on a road trip with six feisty old gangsters and one ex-nightclub dancer. I had not intended for her to keep the name Mary. It’s so not the name of a heroine of today! Nor is my Mary a medieval maiden. I named the character Mary Stuart after Mary Stuart Masterson in the film Bed of Roses because both Marys were strong but vulnerable when it came to love, both were very smart yet a bit naive. I never did change my Mary’s name. By the time I finished the book, the character and the name were inextricably entwined. At least it’s fairly innocuous. Like Margaret Mitchell, I could have named my heroine Pansy. Ouch.

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Gender

To create a character, we begin with gender. If your character is of the opposite gender than yours, make sure you know how the other half thinks, feels, and speaks, otherwise your character might seem more of a caricature than a real person.

There are basic differences between the genders. For example, women have better peripheral vision, so while both men and women ogle each other with the same frequency, men are caught gazing more often than women are.

Brain scans show that women have between fourteen and sixteen areas that evaluate others’ behavior, while men have only four to six. Because of this, women are better at juggling several unrelated topics in a single conversation. They also genderuse five vocal tones to make their points. Since men can only identify three of those tones, they often miss what women are trying to say. So men accuse women of not being direct and women accuse men of not listening.

Women ask questions to show interest in the person; men ask questions to gain information. Women find that talking about a problem provides relief; men feel that talking about a problem is dwelling on the negative. Women think that continuing to discuss the problem demonstrates support; men want to make a decision and forget it. Women provide peripheral details because they want to be understood; men just want them to make their point. Women think that talking about a relationship brings people closer; men generally think it’s useless.

There is a wide spectrum of both male and female behavior, though, so you can write a character however you wish as long as you can make it work.

You make it work by ensuring there is a reason—a motivation—for your characters behavior. We learn much about characters from their actions, but what the character does is not the defining element. The defining element is why the character does what he does. Characters can do anything, though the actions must be psychologically true and consistent. A character who is cowardly but does not hesitant to rescue someone from danger without any reference to fear or a believable reason for the action is not a well-written character.

When it comes to storytelling, character is all. The characters and plot (what the characters do and why) should be so intertwined that we never see them as separate.

***

This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Resist the Urge to Explain

People often tell me they feel they know my characters, as if my story people were a part of their lives, which is always wonderful to hear. It means I did my job. And it means the readers did their job. Incredible but credible characters are a combined effort. Characters are conceived in the author’s imagination, but they come alive in readers’ imaginations.

A character’s story begins with a gleam in her parents’ eye and ends with her death. The story we telistenll is but a fraction of that life, and where we choose to begin and where we, the writer, choose to end defines the story. If we begin with a crime and end with a resolution of that crime, we have a mystery. If we begin with a girl meeting a boy or a woman meeting a man and end with happily ever after, we have a romance. If we chronicle the rise and fall of the character’s fortunes, we could have a tragedy, a family drama or any number of stories.

The illusion of a well-told story is such that, whatever the genre, by the end of the book readers know the character as well as they know themselves and their friends. Readers know, or think they know, everything in the character’s life that brought her to crisis and how everything in the character’s life will work out after the story problem is resolved. By giving readers the essence of the character, we give them the means to continue the character’s story long after the book has come to an end.

How do we work this sleight of hand? By showing the character in action and in relationships. By defining the character through decisions in moments of crisis.

In the prologue of Light Bringer, Helen comes home from working a double shift at the hospital to find a baby on her doorstep. She shows her nurturing characteristics by taking care of the child, Rena. She shows the beginning of a metamorphosis from staid nurse to loving mother by putting off calling the authorities so she can enjoy the child bit longer. But what really defines her is how she acts in a moment of crisis. Rena, a magical child, or at least a precocious one, tells Helen they have to leave, that her invisible playmate says “they” are after Rena and when they find her, they will kill Helen. Helen doesn’t hesitate. She packs up her car and her life and escapes with the baby.

Helen’s decision defines not only her own character, but also the character of the baby, the character of the invisible playmate, and perhaps even the story itself. It is through such defining moments that we can create a character so real readers believe they know more about the character than was ever actually written.

In older novels, especially the classics, authors wrote page after page of character description, telling us who their characters are. Those authors dissected their characters’ motivations, told us their every thought, explained every feeling. Today’s readers, myself included, have no patience for such long drawn-out static passages. We want to get right into the heart of the story. We want to learn who the character is by what she does, who she knows, and how she acts and reacts.

Showing, not telling, is a basic axiom of writing for today’s market, but it is often hard to resist the urge to explain since you know far more about your characters than you can or should put in your novel. Still, by restraining yourself and letting readers be part of the creation process, letting them find their own explanations for what your characters do, you give them a stake in the characters and the story. And so your characters come alive.

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This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Novel Writing Tips and Techniques From Authors of Second Wind Publishing

Novel Writing Tips and Techniques from Authors of Second Wind Publishing is the 100th book published by Second Wind. I am thrilled to be a part of this extraordinary project.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing

Table of Contents

A Publisher’s Top and Bottom Five: What We’re Looking For vs. What We’re Watching For by Mike Simpson
On Becoming an Author by Susan Surman
Finding Time to Write & Overcoming Writer’s Block by Mairead Walpole
Creating Incredible but Credible Characters by Pat Bertram
How to Begin and End a Story by Lazarus Barnhill
Plot Twists: Three Little Questions by Norm Brown
Points of View by Juliet Waldron
Moving Smoothly: Transitioning in Writing by Jan Linton (JJ Dare)
Captivating Settings by Deborah J Ledford
Foreshadowing by Nancy A Niles
Timing by Claire Collins
Don’t Keep Me Dangling by Sherrie Hansen
Sex SCENES not SEX Scenes by Pat Bertram
Film as Literary Influence on the Novel: How to Approach Scenes by Eric Wasserman
How Much Narrative is Too Much by J. Conrad Guest
A Jerk’s Guide to Comedy Writing by Noah Baird
The Challenges and Joys of Writing a Novel Series by Christine Husom
Creating a Believable Science-Fiction Environment by Dellani Oakes
Write it Right by Dellani Oakes
The Importance of Formatting by Deborah J Ledford
Writing Aids and Organizational Tools by Coco Ihle

Novel Writing Tips and Techniques is available from Second Wind Publishing, Amazon (Print & Kindle), Barnes and Noble (Nook), Smashwords (all ebook formats including palm devices)

Click here to Help Us Celebrate the Publication of Our 100th Book!!